I have been fortunate to have a perch from which to write about a host of highly charged issues that matter a great deal to me. The “Higher Ed Gamma” blog has provided a platform from which I’ve been able to share my opinions about such hot topics as the future of the professoriate, pedagogy, curriculum design, the humanities, campus activism, academic freedom, in loco parentis and much more. No subject has been off-limits, and no one has ever threatened to censor or water down my perspective.
Which means I should not flinch when really tough issues arise. Like, for instance, the AP’s African American Studies course framework and the American Historical Review’s 1619 Project Forum. Let me discuss both of these documents in turn.
The current AP African American Studies framework—234 pages long, divided into four sections, Origins of the African Diaspora; Freedom, Enslavement and Resistance; The Practice of Freedom; and Movements and Debates—certainly looks comprehensive. Its focus on primary sources surely makes sense, both pedagogically and politically. While I don’t recognize the names of all the framework’s contributors, those I do know—like Daina Ramey Berry, Henry Louis Gates and John Thornton—are among the academy’s premier scholars in their areas of specialization. In other words, the framework is anything but an amateurish venture.
The AP framework was certainly well intended. I’m sure many contributors felt that giving Black studies AP status would elevate the field and give it the recognition it deserves. But the result has been an unnecessary political ruckus that may well set back ethnic studies at the high school level for the considerable future.
Of course, the entire AP-precollege industry is problematic. Top colleges often ignore AP scores and require students to take a placement test. A profit-making enterprise, AP classes (like early-college courses) have become a way for states like mine to reduce college costs.
Given the AP’s importance, let me do my best to evaluate the African American Studies framework. Critical engagement is at the lifeblood of the academic enterprise, and as a U.S. historian I believe I have a duty, indeed a responsibility, to respectfully analyze works that speak to my own areas of research.
Obviously, the College Board set itself up for a fall. The initial curriculum draft made it all too easy for politically motivated conservative critics to attack the framework as agenda-driven. Had the drafters included a wider range of voices in its concluding section, the framework would have been much harder to attack.
But there are some real issues that need to be raised irrespective of your ideological leanings.
1. Are high school teachers sufficiently qualified and trained to teach the curriculum at a college level? I, for one, believe that college-level courses should be taught by instructors who have training and credentials comparable to those of instructors at four-year institutions. Even at community colleges, I think accreditors should insist that instructors be at least ABD, with a specialization in the areas they are teaching. After all, there’s no shortage of supply. Just ask yourself: Without sufficient graduate-level training in sub-Saharan African history, how can a teacher effectively respond to student questions?
2. Does the curriculum reflect the most recent scholarly thinking? At the risk of some hyperbole, one could argue that the framework (especially after the recent deletions) reflects the state of Black studies and African American history circa 1980. The thrust of subsequent scholarship has been much more comparative, with a greater stress on areas initially colonized by Spain, on Black political agency, on the Black role in reshaping all aspects of American culture, including American ideals of freedom—and especially on the reasons why inequalities persist despite the great legislative achievements and judicial decisions of the civil rights era.
Since 1980, many important studies, by scholars like Ira Berlin, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Jane Landers and Philip D. Morgan, have given slavery in what’s now the United States a genuine history, showing how the Black population changed demographically, religiously and in many other respects. Also, thanks to the research of historians like Wilma King, Elizabeth Pleck and Marie Jenkins Schwartz, we learned much more about the nature of family life, kinship relations, childhood and the life course during and after slavery. Then, too, we are much more knowledgeable about the development of African American expressive culture (as a result of research by scholars such as Shane White) and about 19th- and early-20th-century grassroots Black political mobilizations involving emigrationism, biracial electoral alliances, social and economic separatism, and pan-Africanism, by scholars like Steven Hahn. More of these findings might have been incorporated into the framework.
3. Does the framework adequately integrate Black history, European history and U.S. political and economic history? I don’t think so. To take just a few examples: Shouldn’t the framework more systematically trace the development of European conceptions of race or the relationship between the rise of modern slavery and the growth of mercantile and industrial capitalism, or the growth of antislavery thought? Shouldn’t it also refer at greater length to the connections between slavery and the origins, ideology and outcome of the American Revolution and centrality of slavery in the drafting of the Constitution and the evolution of the party system? How about the complex relationships between Black and white abolitionists?
4. Does the curriculum treat contemporary era and current debates adequately? You might not know from the AP framework that recent scholarship has problematized many of the issues that the curriculum treats. Why, scholars have asked, did the Brown v. Board of Education decision have such a delayed impact and what were the decision’s consequences for Black principals and teachers? What about the heated debates during the 1960s and 1970s over racial capitalism and internal colonialism? And shouldn’t there be much more about the rise of Black political leadership at the urban, state and national levels?
Now, let’s turn next to the American Historical Review’s forum on “The 1619 Project,” in which 19 historians were asked “to respond to one or two essays of their choice.”
Let me be clear about my personal perspective. I believe that the AHR’s responsibility is not to endorse or repudiate the project or render a thumbs-up or -down, but, rather, to help its readership, including schoolteachers, engage with the project on a high level. That is, to provide nuance, inject complexity, add facts and discuss teaching strategies.
Is that what the forum did? Not really. I find it stunning that the World Socialist Web Site remains the place to turn if one truly wants to understand the factual, conceptual, theoretical, methodological and, yes, political issues that are at stake in the controversies surrounding “The 1619 Project.”
Annette Gordon-Reed is a historian I admire greatly. I only wish that her contribution on the American culture of white supremacy had adopted a comparative perspective—perhaps building on Carl N. Degler’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1971 study of comparative slavery in Brazil and the United States—to trace the decline of the enslavement of Indigenous peoples, the protracted development of the law of slavery, the rise of the Black-white binary, the relationship between the emergence of Enlightenment science and racial categorization, the role of commercial popular culture in disseminating racial stereotypes, and the degrees to which various immigrant groups embraced or resisted the culture of white supremacy and the early-19th-century challenges to that culture and the system of segregation that it established in the North.
We mustn’t reify the culture of white supremacy. It is a construct that has distinctive national characteristics, has undergone far-reaching changes over time and has been subject to repeated (if only modestly successful) attack.
A piece on the interconnected histories of enslavement and settler colonialism is, unfortunately, more about historians “who police authority over historical truths and who marginalize nontraditional perspectives” than it is about the nature, drivers, dynamics and consequences of settler colonialism, as well as about Indigenous responses. That contribution might also have done more to discuss the complex, often contradictory, relations between Black and Indigenous peoples.
An intervention on democracy, surprisingly, doesn’t explore the relationship between slavery and the rise of white manhood suffrage, the party system, political rhetoric or populist politics, but, rather argues that “The 1619 Project” “reinforces the kind of self-congratulatory (neo)liberalism that denies racism.”
A piece by Daniel Sharfstein argues, “‘The 1619 Project’ is part of a long tradition in Black political thought that has paired critiques of structural injustice with claims of belonging and a deep investment in the idea of America.” That’s certainly true, but, of course, there have been powerful counter traditions, Black nationalist, pan-Africanist, Marxist, that fall far outside this nation’s liberal consensus.
Daryl Michael Scott, the contributor most critical of “The 1619 Project,” views that initiative as mythmaking in service of a political agenda. In his view, it represents a strategic and interpretive turn away from a scholarship that emphasized Black agency. It epitomizes “a historiographical shift from a moratorium on depicting African Americans as victims” designed to reinforce claims for reparations and redress.
Somewhat similarly, Indrani Chatterjee considers the volume’s raison d’être as “reparations for the continued economic exploitation of both the formerly unfree and the free Black people in North America.” She criticizes the project for failing to sufficiently distinguish between the pseudo-scientific forms of racism in earlier eras and the “color-blind” liberal racism of today and for lacking a conceptual framework capable of explaining the connections between enslaved and nominally free contract laborers, indebted sharecroppers and leased convicts.
Some of the responses emphasize “The 1619 Project’s” strengths. Karin Wulf, for example, discusses the impact of colonialism and government policies that undercut the ability of Black and Indigenous families to sustain intergenerational property and wealth. Eve M. Troutt Powell calls the project “an important literary, political and cultural monument for Americans.”
Others point to the project’s weaknesses. Sandra E. Greene argues that the references to Africa attribute “too much power to the slave trader to erase language, culture and a sense of community from the enslaved” and ignore “how Africans themselves identified their communities in Africa,” while downplaying “cultural retentions and blendings” in the New World.
James H. Sweet argues that the project’s U.S. focus “reduces Black people’s claims for freedom, democracy, justice and reparations to the history of the United States” and replacing a triumphalist narrative of American history with its inverse, rather than focusing on the broader process of displacement and imperial expansion. Jeannette Eileen Jones observes that the project should have recognized that New World slavery had already been institutionalized prior to 1619.
Several essays, including those by Troutt Powell, Rachel Schine and Chatterjee seek to compare and contrast the American experience to the areas of their expertise, North Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, looking at definitions and constructions of race and solidarities and conflicts among minoritized groups. Chatterjee examines the genealogy of concepts involving caste, tribe and illegitimacy. Alan Mikhail discusses the Islamic backgrounds of many of the “20. and odd Negroes” who arrived in Jamestown in 1619.
Erika Denise Edwards, a Latin Americanist, looks at the “race-making process” and places the “legalization, categorization and the meanings assigned to Blackness” in comparative perspective. Danielle Terrazas Williams, like Edwards, tries to re-situate “The 1619 Project” in a hemispheric context and encourages scholars to look at Latin American linkages and interconnections.
When I was a graduate student, I collected a host of primary sources that were later included in an interpretive 1979 anthology on pre–Civil War American culture. Perhaps the most moving selection—an 1837 statement about the “killing influence” of prejudice—was by Theodore S. Wright, an ardent abolitionist, an active defender of fugitive slaves and the first Black person to receive a degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. His words still resonate today:
“It is true that in these United States … there are men, like myself, colored with the skin like my own, who are not subjected to the lash, who are not liable to have their wives and their infants torn from them … But sir, still we are slaves—everywhere we feel the chain galling us … This spirit is withering all our hopes and ofttimes causes the colored parent as he looks upon his child, to wish he had never been born … This influence cuts us off from everything; it follows us up from childhood to manhood; it excludes us from all stations of profit, usefulness and honor; takes away from us all motive for pressing forward in enterprises, useful and important to the world and to ourselves.”
For all of its grand ambitions—to rewrite this country’s master narrative and challenge the nation’s liberal, exceptionalist pretensions—“The 1619 Project” doesn’t effectively integrate the experience of Native Americans or European and Asian immigrants or the white working class (and its predecessors, including indentured servants, Redemptioners and apprentices), into a coherent synthesis. Neither does it adequately link this nation’s glaring and persistent economic, educational, health and housing disparities to the evolution of the American economy and polity or successfully explicate the intentional and unintentional impact of race upon policy formulation and the consequences of law and policy upon racial inequities. Nor does it successfully locate the U.S. experience in the comparative context, for this is not the only nation in which law, policy and culture function in ways that naturalize profound, persistent inequalities. Those ambitions prove to be a bridge too far.
That said, explaining the persistence of racial inequities and cultural biases in the face of a century of policy innovations and the rise of a more syncretic culture remains one of the great tasks facing U.S. historians. Unless this country makes good on its promissory note that guarantees every American “the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and succeeds in bringing more than a talented 10th of Black Americans to success, its pretensions to equality and opportunity remain a sham.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.